The National Geographic channel's "Mars" series has entered its second season and has inspired AspenCore's Special Projects team to delve into the future of space exploration. Our "Road to Mars" report covers the designs, technologies and imagination that drive space research, and the electronics and sourcing infrastructure that support aerospace hardware development.
The world's fascination with Mars continues to fuel space exploration, though few missions to the Red Planet have been an unqualified success. Hardware is only one element in highly-complex space operations, but sourcing electronic components for aerospace applications leaves little room for error.
Aerospace OEMs—like many subcontractors to government agencies—have eschewed military-specification (mil-spec) electronic components in favor of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) parts. Although the cost and technology benefits to COTS devices are considerable, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) raised a red flag in 2017 about quality-control practices in the sourcing of commercial components.
Components used in space exploration largely flow through the same supply chain as other high-reliability devices. “In most cases,” said Roger Raley, vice president for TTI Inc.’s military and aerospace segment, “the test requirements of space-level components are more stringent due to even more extreme environmental factors than you would find on/near Earth.” NASA routinely procures hundreds of thousands of mechanical and electrical parts including capacitors, fuses, inductors, microcircuits, resistors, semiconductors, and thermistors. However, a 2017 report conducted by NASA’s Inspector General found gaps in the agency’s electronics-sourcing practices.
The IG report found the lack of a centralized component and supplier database puts NASA missions at risk. Since 2009, NASA has suffered four mission failures and one with reduced capability due to engineering flaws, workmanship issues, and problem parts. The use of COTS devices could increase non-conformance risks and add unknowns to the agency’s quality-control processes, NASA's IG said.
Although mission failures are relatively infrequent, according to NASA, the agency lost about $1.3 billion over the past 10 years due to substandard parts:
Even robots sent to Mars must survive a hostile environment to be useful. “You have to get it there and operate it for long time for harsh conditions,” said Ken O’Neill, director of marketing, Space and Aviation at Microsemi, a Microchip Technology company. “It is extremely cold on Mars and the radiation on Mars is way beyond what it is on earth. These devices also have to do all of this in very power efficient way.” In short, according to the Defense Science Board, "when operating in the unforgiving environment of space, tolerance for a part’s failure or error is low."
As contractors to the U.S. aerospace and defense industries have consolidated, demand for dedicated mil-spec parts has dwindled. A high level of competition in the commercial electronics market provides state-of-the-art technology, faster delivery, and lower cost options for government agencies. However, the commercial supply chain is not a closed system. The risks of sourcing a nonconforming part or even a counterfeit component are increased.
The IG found that procurement centers within NASA don’t share supplier and component information, so recurrent problems aren’t flagged across the organization.
“The agency does not maintain a centralized parts quality history database or facilitate the integration of individual center systems; track all relevant supplier performance history; or enforce requirements that centers participate in agency parts-quality-management systems,” the report said. “Without these control mechanisms, it is more difficult for NASA to mitigate the risk of nonconforming parts entering its project hardware supply chain.”
This gap has both short- and long-term consequences. “Components are going into both research and actual equipment,” said TTI’s Raley. “There are many stages of development before equipment gets launched in a mission. Much of that development includes building various systems and subsystems that are put through rigorous testing in environments which replicate and push the extremes of what the actual field of operation will be.”
Sourcing concerns aren’t unique to NASA—a Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) mission in 2015 failed because of one flawed part. A subsequent investigation found a commonly used strut rod end supporting a rocket’s helium system—certified to handle 1,000 pounds of force-- failed at 2,000 pounds. The rocket exploded and destroyed more than 5,300 pounds of NASA supplies, equipment, and materials that would have supported more than 35 science and research investigations on the International Space Station.
Robots & AI expand opportunities
“Robots have been used for decades in space exploration performing everything from physical activities to data collection and analysis,” said TTI’s Raley. “Robots can operate in environments where humans can’t and can operate for years/ decades without the need to come back to Earth. What’s changing in today’s world is the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence. AI will open up an entirely new world of capabilities in terms of both Mars exploration and space exploration in general.”
But NASA will likely continue to face cost and quality challenges. The 2017 IG report recommended a more cooperative and integrated approach to parts quality assurance through active participation across all procurement centers.
“With increasingly more contractor driven projects, the clarity of, and adherence to, NASA policy and procedures regarding the development of Program/Project Quality Assurance Surveillance Plans must continue to improve to reduce the risk of parts nonconformance while applying an appropriate amount of resources through documented quantification of risk,” the report said. The agency is calling for a framework for dealing with part failure and improved execution of policy requirements.
Recommendations for improvement
NASA currently employs systems for electronic parts applications reporting and tracking (EPARTS) and supplier assessment (SAS). By centralizing supplier and component data, NASA can provide a “one-stop shop” for parts engineers and quality assurance personnel. To improve oversight to NASA’s parts quality management process, the IG report recommends:
- Expanding the current NASA data sharing structure to integrate supplier databases with parts databases.
- Investigating causes of gaps in SAS reporting and formulating remedial actions to ensure compliance with SAS reporting requirements.
- Identifying supplier performance information of common interest and modifying SAS data structure to accommodate such information.
- Collaborating with the Office of the Chief Engineer to identify parts history information of common interest and modify EPARTS data structure to accommodate that information and to link to supplier information databases.
- Examining the feasibility of further expanding NASA’s parts and supplier data collection efforts to include contractor-maintained data regarding parts and suppliers utilized in NASA contracts.
- Evaluating current parts and supplier database system architectures to determine the cost and benefits of establishing an agency-wide database system as opposed to maintaining current decentralized database systems.
- Incorporating a feedback process to improve the agency’s tracking and recording of contractors’ and suppliers’ submissions of alerts and agency action notices.
Reviewing a representative sample of [current quality assurance plans] to identify deficiencies and best practices to and revise policy as needed. This effort must include quantification and documentation of nonconformance and control risks for ensuring surveillance activities; and resources commensurate with part criticality and overall accepted project risk
Want to dig deeper into our future as a space-faring race? Check out these articles from AspenCore's "The Road to Mars" Special Project:
- Special Project: The Road to Mars -- Half the diameter of Earth, with a nearly identical day/night cycle, Mars beacons to us across the distance as a place we might one day be able to call our second home.
- Why We Should Try for Mars -- Sending a manned expedition to Mars, and ultimately establishing a colony there, is fraught with difficulties while promising great rewards.
- National Geographic’s Mars, Season 2 -- This new season brings industry and science together in an uncomfortable, evolving struggle for necessary co-existence with different priorities and goals.
- The Hardest Thing About Living on Mars... Will Be Us! -- If you establish a base on Mars and someone from another organization comes over and steals your marbles or kicks over your sand castle, who are you going to call and what are you going to do about it?
- Mars Demands Component, Packaging & Design Trifecta -- The harsh environment of Mars can be daunting, but aerospace companies are leveraging proven technology to make ruggedized systems.
- My Astronaut Training for Mars -- In addition to simulated space missions, Max got to experience the effects of walking on the moon and tumbling in a 3-axis simulator.